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One of college rugby's premier rivalries now has a traveling trophy. Life and Arkansas State, who meet Saturday in the D1A semifinals, have created the Curt Huckaby Cup to honor the former Arkansas State coach, celebrate the spirit of the rivalry, as well as raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), with which Huckaby has recently been diagnosed.
Huckaby didn't invent college rugby in the south, but he undoubtedly
changed its landscape, resurrecting the Arkansas State program and guiding
its growth from a DII startup to a DI powerhouse. He coached the Red Wolves
with infectious enthusiasm for 14 years, amassing a 183-44-1 record and
acting as a torchbearer for rugby in the region. His son, Matt, became an
All American, an Eagle, and his successor as ASU's head coach.
Not since the early '80s had a team from the south made a DI final four until Arkansas State reached the semifinals in 2010, the year Curt handed the reins to his son. And until Life University started an undergraduate varsity program the next season, the Red Wolves had no equals in their quadrant of the country.
Since then, the two heavyweights - accounting for four 7s and 15s National Championships - have met numerous times. The contests are always played at an elite level of both skill and intensity, and a keen observer will notice a display of profound respect and sportsmanship after the final whistle, when the rivals exchange a knowing grin acknowledging an extraordinary spectacle has just taken place. It's this aspect which led to the formation of the Curt Huckaby Cup.
“There are certain people you come across in your life that have a profound and special impact on you. Some are relatives; some are coaches, peers, etc. Coach Huckaby has always been one of these individuals to me," said Life coach Dan Payne.
"For the last five years, I've met him pre-match and post-match at the very same corner of the pitch in Jonesboro, through victories and losses. It's a ritual I look forward to as much as going home and hugging a parent or sibling when you first see them over the holidays. It's a love and respect for someone that has had such a profound impact on my life and, more importantly, the student-athletes he has worked with and that have benefited from Arkansas State rugby.”
What started as a numb foot for Huckaby, limiting his golf swing and epic back yard chases with his grandchildren, soon turned into a rare and serious diagnosis. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, killing motor neurons. When they die, the brain's ability to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
The disease is a tough one to diagnose, but with the help of local
neurologist and former Eagle National Team coach Dr. Julie McCoy and her
partner Dr. Michael Chesser, Huckaby was able to pinpoint his
If you watched the Red Wolves win the 7s National Championship in the fall, you might have noticed blue pinstriped ribbons (for ALS Awareness, a nod to Gehrig) on Arkansas State's jerseys, and the team playing with an extraordinary amount of purpose.
Curt was watching back in Arkansas, scouting, and calling his son Matt, who was coaching the Red Wolves to a second-straight national title, the whole time. Curt even noticed when one of the players scored a try, went to pat the blue ribbon on his sleeve in a formal salute, and patted the wrong shoulder. These are the small things Curt cherishes and finds humor in, at the heart of coaching well-intentioned, impressionable young men.
In future years, no one knows what the landscape of college rugby might hold. However, through the Curt Huckaby Cup, ASU and Life are sure to remain fierce competitors on the field and friends off it.
Curt still makes Arkansas State's home games and watches intently from afar. Word of his diagnosis has slowly matriculated through college rugby circles, and when Curt's acquaintances, fellow coaches and former foes call, Matt is left answering the question, 'How's your dad doing?'
“We are making the ole man take some of his own advice," He'll reply. "He has always preached, ‘Win today,’ getting the most out of every practice. We are now literally winning every day we can and having a great time doing it. I am very lucky to have him in my life.”
You can find more information about ALS and details concerning giving here.